Four System Changes To Support and Appreciate K12 Teachers

While well-intentioned, encouraging self-care among teachers isn’t a substitute for broader changes that signal they’re supported and appreciated. As we celebrate Teacher Appreciation Week, here’s what to focus on instead.
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Blog date
5/2/23
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We don’t have to tell you that leading—and teaching—in a school is a tough job. One of the silver linings of the pandemic is that it showed us that the education system is ripe for an overhaul. Of course, change isn’t as easy or quick as we’d like it to be—and as a school leader, understanding where to begin can be overwhelming. You might wonder, “do I have the ability to change the system in a way that benefits my teachers and staff?”

The good news is that while many high-level changes might be beyond the purview of a single school leader, there are many actions you can take within your own sphere of influence that can reduce stress and overwhelm for your school staff. You have the power to set the tone and establish a new way of working and being at your school. 

The good news is that while many high-level changes might be beyond the purview of a single school leader, there are many actions you can take within your own sphere of influence that can reduce stress and overwhelm for your staff.

As we celebrate Teacher Appreciation Week, we’re highlighting four big shifts you can make in your own school to make teachers’ jobs more manageable—and yours, too. 

The truth about teacher self-care

Before we dig into those shifts, we want to recognize a solution to teacher burnout that’s often discussed: self-care. While well-meaning (and certainly critical!), it’s important to note that teachers are often given encouragement to perform self-care on their own time. However, teachers are already short on time—and, as Cult of Pedagogy’s Jennifer Gonzales writes, that means the “chronic lack of time in their lives means there’s zero margin for error.”

And, as one educator pointed out in this Education Week article, self-care can often come off as shortsighted or patronizing—or missing the root cause of the problem altogether. “Mindfulness is not going to help with the kinds of structural problems that stretch teachers beyond their limits. Just telling a teacher to breathe when they haven’t had a break all day is not going to help at all.”

For that reason, the insights we suggest below take self-care out of the equation and concentrate instead on how school leaders can improve the environments and the systems that educators operate in every day—and increase the support and appreciation available in that setting

Find teachers time—for themselves and their craft

Many ideas have been floated to help give teachers more time back, some of which might be easier to implement than others: holding fewer—and shorter—meetings, putting a hold on new initiatives and programs, and thinking creatively about reducing teachers’ administrative burden through hiring or other means.

Consider what opportunities for change might be available in your own school, and ask your teachers for their opinions and thoughts. Do they have suggestions for shorter-term fixes, like the ones mentioned above, and longer-term remedies that need more vetting, such as alternative staffing models or team teaching? And how will these solutions improve student learning and school culture?

At the very least, think about adhering to a 1:1 approach to teacher workload, where every task that’s put on a teacher’s plate is balanced with one that’s taken off. New tasks and expectations are unavoidable, but committing to keeping a teacher’s workload manageable can go a long way.

At the very least, think about adhering to a 1:1 approach to teacher workload, where every task that’s put on a teacher’s plate is balanced with one that’s taken off. 

Bring teachers into the decision-making process

Too often, school leaders feel they have to be the one driving the decisions that get made in their schools—after all, that’s why you’re in your role, right? However, engaging your teachers before new initiatives or professional development calendars are set in stone is one of the best actions you can take to ensure teachers feel connected to their roles as valued members of the school community.

Engaging your teachers before new initiatives are set in stone is one of the best actions you can take to ensure teachers feel connected to their roles. 

Dr. Kris Scardamalia, associate professor from the National Center for School Mental Health at the University of Maryland, puts it this way: “Think about if at your job you didn’t ever really have a say in what your job was, and someone’s always telling you what to do. It’s very natural to become a little disconnected—and start to feel a little less responsible. It doesn’t feel good.”

One way to avoid that disconnect? Give teachers input and autonomy with the decisions that involve or concern them. If there’s a challenge, let teachers get involved with brainstorming and innovating potential solutions to those problems. 

Ask for teacher feedback, and prioritize addressing it

This teacher puts it best: “Teachers know what works. We need more people to not only listen to teachers, but we also need people to implement the things that teachers say.” District leader and New Leaders alum Brandy Reeves agrees, saying: “Today’s teachers want to be heard. They want to be invited to conversations where you engage them around the work and who they are as a person.” 

Asking for feedback begins with putting a structure in place to encourage those conversations. After all, an “open door” policy is good, but a “come on in” policy is better. 

The key is to provide a variety of structures to account for those who feel comfortable offering feedback face-to-face, and those who might want to make their input more private.

Consider a regular series of one-on-one meetings or office hours with teachers, debriefs after completed initiatives or events, or an ask for input through an online survey or email. The key is to provide a variety of structures to account for those who feel comfortable offering feedback face-to-face, and those who might want to make their input more private. 

The second step of this process is to use teacher feedback to better support them. The benefit is twofold: not only will your teachers know that it’s worth their time, but it also shows you’re willing to change behaviors and policies because of what they’ve shared with you. No matter how you ask for the feedback, it’s important to create a psychologically safe space where teachers can share their honest feedback without fear of repercussions. 

Pave the way for professional vulnerability

While we tend to focus on social-emotional support for the students in our schools, there’s also a clear need to create the same support for teachers.

There is a place for professional learning and professional vulnerability, and modeling that as a leader is part of your own personal leadership. Making a place for vulnerability within your school culture is another systemic way to value and support teachers. The key here is to create this space by design, not by chance. 

Making a place for vulnerability within your school culture is another systemic way to value and support teachers. The key here is to create this space by design, not by chance. 

One way to do that is to share where you might be in your own leadership journey. Gina Sudaria, a California-based superintendent currently working with a New Leaders executive coach, intentionally shares that journey with her team. “I want to model that everyone needs a thought partner—no matter what level you are at,” she says. 

Another is to create a place for peer-to-peer connections. For example, the Baltimore-based Happy Teacher Revolution was founded by a Baltimore City Public Schools kindergarten teacher who wanted to bring other teachers together to reflect on their experiences and share support strategies. Today, the organization trains teachers to initiate support groups in their own school communities. 

By providing a consistent and formalized outlet for teachers to be vulnerable, tell the truth about how they’re feeling, and support their fellow teachers, you’re developing the social-emotional muscle of your teachers, who in turn will be able to serve students in the best way possible. 

The key to all these steps: communication

The common thread throughout all of these supports? Communication

Whether you’re looking to solve the challenge about your teachers’ lack of time, making it clear that you need and want to implement their feedback, or looking for their help in the decision-making process at your school, hearing from you early and often is the key to building trust and maintaining healthy relationships. It’s that trust—and those relationships—that create the support teachers need. 

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